Tony Nicholson, an Executive MBA (EMBA) student at Cambridge Judge Business School, welcomed classmates to a Cambridge screening of his Chinese sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth II in which he plays a bad guy with good intentions.
Standing in front of his Cambridge Judge Business School classmates at a packed Cambridge premiere of his latest movie, sci-fi epic The Wandering Earth II, Tony Nicholson wishes everyone “Yuanfen“, a Chinese term loosely defined as “serendipity” or “fateful coincidence”.
Yet Tony’s journey from England through Oman and the US to becoming a big name in China is hardly coincidence – nor was his decision to study for an Executive MBA (EMBA) degree at Cambridge Judge.
Why studying at Cambridge was a childhood dream
“It’s always been a dream to come to Cambridge since I was a kid,” says Tony, who first moved to China to study the Chinese language shortly before the Beijing Olympics at age 18. “In China, ‘Cambridge’ is the biggest name, as John Harvard (who founded Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1636) came from Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge.”
Wandering Earth II was the first Chinese film to open in China and the UK on the same day, 22 January 2023, including a gala premiere in London’s red-carpeted Leicester Square. The Cambridge premiere was held at the iconic Arts Picturehouse cinema a half-mile from Cambridge Judge Business School, and was full of Tony’s EMBA classmates, CJBS faculty, staff and representatives from other Cambridge Judge programmes such as MFin, MBA, PhD and his college, Hughes Hall.
“We are grateful and honoured to share this film with the University of Cambridge and the class,” Tony told the audience in introducing the film, standing in front of the big screen. “Wandering Earth II is about overcoming a dilemma through collaboration. Many of the lessons we are learning at Cambridge Judge Business School are demonstrated aptly throughout the film. We have people from the faculty, the students, the staff, the Cambridge community, here at the University of Cambridge, about to watch the Cambridge premiere of The Wandering Earth II.“
Sci-fi plot revolves around artificial intelligence and a dying sun
The movie focuses on the United Earth Government’s efforts to propel Earth out of our solar system to avoid planetary catastrophe linked to a dying sun. While he plays the “bad guy” in fighting (in all senses of the word) Wu Jing, China’s leading action actor, Tony says his character actually has good underlying intentions in opposing the erosion of personal freedom through the explosion of artificial intelligence.
Wandering Earth II is a follow-up to the original Wandering Earth film (released in 2019 and the highest-grossing sci-fi film from China) and is a “prequel” to the original directed by the same director, Frant Gwo. “The first Wandering Earth has taken about $700m at the box office, and Wandering Earth II is nearly there,” Tony said in an interview prior to the 25 February Cambridge premiere. “It could be the first billion-dollar film from China.”
Combining business, fitness and China has proved a winning combination
Business, fitness and a fascination with China have long been in Tony’s blood, predating his more recent career as an actor and video production company owner.
Tony was born in Cornwall to British parents; his father, a former Royal Marine, has a heritage from British Guiana. After growing up in Oman and studying as a Royal Marine cadet at the Royal Hospital School in England, Tony went at age 17 to the Hotchkiss boarding school in the US state of Connecticut, where he had his first Chinese language lesson.
“At that time, China just seemed amazing. I saw a map of this huge country with one language and I said, ‘Wow, what an opportunity – I want to go.’”
Tony then went to China to study the language – at Hanshan Normal University in Chaozhou and then Tsinghua University in Beijing – around the time of his father’s death following cardiac arrest. “He was my best friend and super, super fit. He was fit but unhealthy due to drinking and cigarettes.” Determined to be both fit and healthy, Tony is a teetotaler who typically wakes up around 04:30 in the morning and runs 5km or more at lunchtime.
Knowing your worth: adding a zero onto selling products or services
After becoming proficient in Chinese and studying traditional Chinese medicine, Tony began a personal training business in China that quickly gained prominent clients including the then-US ambassador to China and executives at big Chinese firms. After meeting life-coach author Tony Robbins and spending four days in 2012 at one of his events in Fiji, Tony Nicholson learned that people will pay for perceived value.
“I communicated to Tony Robbins that I was charging $50 an hour and he said he was earning $1m a year for 10 sessions,” says Tony Nicholson. “He said that you can raise your price with value, and now I’m always thinking about adding a zero. And that’s what’s happened with my 3 films so far: the first one had a budget of $2m, the second one $20m, and Wandering Earth II had a $200m budget that included 20,000 extras.”
Besides the personal training business, Tony established a food company with a Chinese partner to sell protein bars, fruit-and-vegetable juices, and other healthy foods. He then wrote a book, Core Health: 8 Simple Steps to Creating Balanced Life, that sold 120,000 copies in China, and launched a best-selling app on the Apple App store, Tony’s 8 Minutes.
Tony caught the attention of Apple CEO Tim Cook in Beijing, who dropped in on a fitness session. Tim posted the interaction around health and fitness on Weibo (the Twitter of China).
Keanu Reeves, stunt school, and a heart shape called Bixin
A stint in Beijing as bodyguard to actor Keanu Reeves led Tony to acting, and he enrolled in a stunt school in Hollywood to learn about the film industry. “I learned from the father of modern acting, Konstantin Stanislavski, who said: ‘There are no small parts, only small actors.’ The 3 Chinese-language films followed, as have numerous appearances on television and elsewhere in China.
His catchphrase? “It’s not really a catchphrase, but I make the heart symbol, Bixin, with my fingers,” he says, flashing the sign with an engaging, toothy smile that belies his buffed-up, tough-guy movie image. “I tested it at a show in China and people went crazy, so I stuck with it.”
How education will outlast fame and physical prowess
Far beyond business, China, and fitness, Tony says that education is the dearest thing to his heart – and that’s what brought him to Cambridge Judge. “Every athlete is one injury away from retirement, and movies will fade, but education will always be with you,” says Tony, now age 36.
After working on two courses at Harvard Business School (SELP Senior Executive Leadership Program and OPM Owners President Management), Tony approached the Executive MBA team at Cambridge Judge and connected with Joanne Bester, Executive Director of the programme now on secondment with a new EMBA initiative.
“I was on set in northern China making Wandering Earth II, but we had a two-hour talk online and it was a very warm call. I came away convinced that this was really it, because Cambridge Judge seemed like a family. I also talked to Simon Taylor (Management Practice Professor of Finance at Cambridge Judge) and read his papers on nuclear power and Asia, and realised that he really knows China.”
Tony began his EMBA studies at Cambridge Judge in September 2022, and the 20-month programme runs until 2024 with students doing a residential weekend in Cambridge every month along with online and personal study.
Soft skills, scaling up and making connections at Cambridge Judge
“I realised that the Cambridge Judge EMBA programme could help bridge the gap between where I was and where I want to be,” he says, including soft skills and scaling up his various enterprises.
“It’s been fantastic. I meet other EMBAs, MPhil students, people at the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge. I thought people would stay in their group, but everyone wants to make connections. There’s a Chinese expression that says: ‘It takes all of us to help each one of us.’”
The private screening for the Cambridge premiere came about after members of the Chinese community in Cambridge and Tony’s EMBA class representatives approached him with the idea. Yet it took more than Yuanfen (serendipity) to make it happen, including negotiations by current EMBA Executive Director Jennifer Martin and EMBA Senior Programme Coordinator Cicely Atherton.
“Jen and Cicely really started pushing it,” says Tony. “It needed an okay from the people who owned the film rights in the UK, the cinema, and others, and I’m just amazed that this all happened. It means a lot to me and my Cambridge Judge family experience that my classmates and others I know in the UK are able to go to this screening.”
Culture, arts and media management area of expertise at Cambridge Judge
While Tony is the first Chinese-speaking action-movie student to pass through Cambridge Judge, he is not the first to succeed in the creative arts – as the Business School has other alumni with careers in film (producing a Johnny Depp movie), music (working with Goldfinger theme song singer Shirley Bassey) and theatre (broadcasting National Theatre productions live in cinemas worldwide and online). Among the concentrations of the Cambridge MBA programme is one in Creative, Arts and Media Management (CAMM), which knits together the business and creative aspects of those sectors.
“The concentration was introduced in 2009-2010 on the basis of the success of the Creative, Arts and Media Management elective” in both the MBA and EMBA programmes, says Allègre Hadida, Associate Professor of Strategy at Cambridge Judge, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts who has authored many papers on film and music.
“In the Creative, Arts and Media Management elective and concentration, we explore key strategic issues and examine the impact of core business models in the creative, arts and media industries on the day-to-day management and future of these sectors. The elective and concentration benefit participants willing to pursue a career in commercial or not-for-profit organisations within the creative, arts and media sectors, and to understand the intersection of these sectors with other industries and ecosystems.”
One of Tony’s EMBA classes, on Organisational Behaviour, featured a presentation by Cambridge Judge PhD candidate Luna Luan, who along with Yeun Joon Kim, Associate Professor in Organisational Behaviour, recently published a journal article about product placement in the film industry.
Learning merchandising lessons from a canine robot
“Reading that article, I understood how a robot dog from the new film sold $17 million of merchandise in just one week,” says Tony. “I’ve learned some great insight on the curvilinear relationship between perceived novelty and product evaluation”, which the authors identify as an inverted U-shaped association.
Following the Cambridge premiere, Tony is off to promote the film in Africa.
Combining film genres, and letting James Cameron know
Asked what future film he would really love to appear in, Tony doesn’t hesitate: “I’d love to be in the Fast and Furious franchise and Avatar 4 and 5, which would combine those 2 genres, and directed by James Cameron”, the famed director of blockbuster films ranging from Titanic to the Terminator and Avatar movies.
“I haven’t had a chance to tell him yet. But I will.”